2014 was not kind to the Tampa Bay Rays as they entered the season with high expectations but finished the season with a losing record. One of the bright spots, however, was the team’s rotation, which will remain a strength of the club heading into 2015. Amid a strong rookie year, Jake Odorizzi showed the ability to be a crucial piece of the Rays’ starting staff for years to come.
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The other key piece the Rays’ received in the James Shields–Wil Myers trade, Odorizzi had a solid first season in the big leagues with 168 innings pitched across 31 starts while compiling an 11-13 record. He had a 4.13 ERA (3.75 FIP) with an impressive 9.32 K/9 ratio and finished just one strikeout short of the Rays’ rookie record set by Matt Moore. His BB/9 ratio of 3.19 wasn’t bad either, and he had a HR/9 of 1.07. His BABIP of .295 also is a good sign–his solid numbers did not have much to do with luck.
It is worth nothing, though, that looking at Odorizzi’s overall numbers does not account for the way he moved past his early season struggles. Through six starts, Odorizzi had managed just a 6.83 ERA and had worked more than five innings just once. The culprit of his poor performance was clear: an inability to get through opposing batting orders more than one time. However, he delivered an encouraging performance on May 9th, striking out 11 in 5 innings of work, and he did not look back. From that point until the end of the year, he went 10-10 with a 3.59 ERA, a 9.49 K/9, a 2.89 BB/9, and a 1.03 HR/9 in 140.1 innings pitched.
Odorizzi’s fastball was not dominant because he throws particularly hard–his fastball averaged a modest 91.49 MPH this season. Instead, the efficacy of Odorizzi’s fastball came from his strong command of it, particularly when he elevated it to change hitters’ eye levels. The common convention in baseball is to keep the ball down, but Odorizzi proved himself comfortable pitching up and that gave him a clear advantage.
Feeding well off Odorizzi’s fastball up in the zone was his newest pitch, his split-changeup. The pitch, which was taught to Odorizzi by Alex Cobb, was unveiled in spring training and quickly became a weapon for him. He did a nice job making the pitch look his fastball out of his hand and then disappear thanks to its great late movement. Jake Odorizzi’s struggle for his entire career has been finding a put-away secondary pitch and now suddenly he has one. Adding the split-change to his fastball, slider, and curveball could take Odorizzi from a back-of-the-rotation starter to a number three starter and just maybe more.
Heading into next season, the keys for Odorizzi will be to diversify his approach to hitters and eliminate mistake pitches as much as possible. Odorizzi’s strikeout rate decreased each month after May, perhaps as the league began to understand his tendency to attack hitters up in the zone. Pitching up is Odorizzi’s game, but it seemed like that he was using the threat of his split-change to pitch up more than he was using his fastball to set up his secondary pitches down in the zone. Odorizzi’s fastball provides a huge boost to his other pitches, and hopefully he will exploit that more next season.
On a related note, Odorizzi also has to do a better job navigating the adverse effects of pitching up in the zone. His fastballs at the letters were so often effective, but it cannot be overly surprising that hitters had an 112 sOPS+ (12% above average) against Odorizzi with two strikes despite all of his strikeouts. There is a reason that most pitchers attack the lower part of the strike zone: mistakes up in the zone tend to be hit much harder than mistakes down.
Misplaced fastballs explain most of Odorizzi’s high homer rate, and he will hope to continue improving that as his major league career continues. Even if his homer rate does end up being around this high the rest of his career, though, he showed signs this season that it would be a worthwhile trade-off given everything else he does well.
Jake Odorizzi will head into 2015 as a lock for a Rays rotation spot along with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Drew Smyly. His development as a pitcher remains ongoing, but he showed tantalizing potential from May to the end of the year, and the Rays are excited to see how good he can get.